Syrian Female Refugee Challenges Traditions in Community Leader Role

In a position traditionally occupied by men, Alya draws on her upbringing to provide leadership and guidance to Syrian refugee community in Lebanon.

Alya draws on her upbringing to provide leadership and guidance to Syrian refugee community in Lebanon.
© Dalal Mawad, Producer/Houssam Hariri, Camera, Editor

Her head wrapped in a black and white keffiyeh – a scarf traditionally worn as a headdress by Arab men – Alya makes her way confidently between the tents of an informal settlement in the northern Bekaa Valley region of Lebanon.

The 50-year-old refugee from Syria checks on the other refugees in the settlement. She is the leader around here, also known as the “shawish”, a role traditionally assigned to refugee men supervising and managing informal tented settlements in Lebanon.

“This gives me strength,” she said proudly.

Ayla’s role is exceptional, and she attributes her leadership qualities to her upbringing. “I get my strength from my father,” she said. Born and raised in a traditional and patriarchal society, Alya said her father inspired her to be brave.  “He taught us to be strong, to stand up for our rights. He was criticized by everyone, including his own brothers, but he really wanted his daughters to be equal to men.”

 “I would never trade her for a male shawish.”

While in some refugee settlements the position of shawish can lead to exploitation, Alya is different. Alya ensures that aid is equally distributed among the refugees in the settlement. Alya’s job involves her acting as a focal point with local organizations and the authorities, as well as UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and other UN bodies.

“She is our mother,” said Bakra, a single mother-of-two residing in the settlement. “She is so calm and respectful of everyone, we trust her.”

Alya is among the many vulnerable Syrian refugees in Lebanon, who after years in temporary exile are struggling to make ends meet. She cannot work as she has been suffering from high blood pressure and a heart condition, preventing her from working in farming, “My sisters support us, but it’s hard. There is a lot to pay for and not enough income.”

She does not get paid to do her job as a shawish, “I do it to help others,” she said. “It can be challenging sometimes but it gives me a tremendous sense of purpose and pride.”

About UNHCR:

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established on 14 December 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. The agency is mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee issues. It strives to ensure that everyone has the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another state, with the option to voluntarily return home when conditions are conducive for return, integrate locally or resettle to a third country. UNHCR has twice won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1954 for its ground-breaking work in helping the refugees of Europe, and in 1981 for its worldwide assistance to refugees.